Copyright 2012 - John F. Schneider & Associates, LLC
(Click on photos to enlarge)
Western Electric 6B Transmitter
KFWI QSL stamp
KFWI was operated by Radio Entertainments Inc. Thomas R. Catton, who was one of the original founders of KFRC, was its president and general manager. Ernest Wolcott was the treasurer and station manager. Catton planned to continue his old KFRC “Tom Cats” program on KFWI.
They acquired property for the transmitter at 27th and Burnham Streets on the slope of Twin Peaks, at 800 ft. above sea level. (In the 1920s, the slopes of Twin Peaks were still sparsely populated.) Two 100 ft. steel self supporting towers were built and a 50 foot horizontal four wire T-type antenna was installed between them.
The station acquired a used transmitter from another city. It is a 1 kW Western Electric model 101-A — an old transmitter by early radio standards, having been the first commercial manufactured unit in 1922. It has been heavily modified by the previous owner, converted to high level modulation and capable of just 500 watts.
License application submitted in June of 1925, and the first license was quickly issued, dated 6-29-25 for a frequency of 226 m (1360 kc) with 500 watts. The call sign of KFWI was assigned. Originally KFWI was instructed to divide time on the frequency with Albert Sherman’s station KFOB in Burlingame, with the time schedule to be determined “thru mutual agreement”. But KFOB was soon off the air and so KFWI became full time.
The new station went on the air January 22, 1926. Several different locations were originally shown as the station location. The original license application listed the top floor of the Monadnock Building at 685 Market Street. Later that year it was shown as the Wiley B. Allen Building, at 153 Kearney Street. In 1927, the studios were listed at 1400 Van Ness Avenue.
A series of frequency changes were ordered for the station in quick succession by the Department of Commerce:
Initially, KFWI met with little commercial success. According to one observer, “When first installed, this station was not very good from a technical and listeners’ standpoint. The quality and type of programs were not very popular; consequently, the station was not successful financially.” This soon resulted in a change in management. By 1926, Catton and Wolcott had left the station. By 1927, Gilbert W. Cattell was the Treasurer and Business Manager.
In its April, 1927, license application, KFWI stated that its programming consisted of “musical entertainment, talks, church services, indirect advertising, a means for people to locate lost people or articles, weather bureau forecasts and warnings, time signals.”
On May 2, 1927, KFWI moved to new studios on the second floor of the Marshall Square Building (Pantages Theater) at 1182 Market Street.
The Federal Radio Commission
Before 1926, radio licensing and regulation were governed by the Department of Commerce. But the weak laws that governed early radio gave the DOC almost no authority, and chaos had resulted in the radio spectrum. To clean up this mess, Congress created the Federal Radio Commission in 1926. Unlike the DOC, the five man commission had true authority to regulate, and they took their responsibilities seriously. One of the FRC’s mandates was to apportion the usage of the radio spectrum equally among different regions of the country. Under this system, California had too many stations and so its numbers needed to be reduced to clear spectrum for other states. Harold A. Lafount, one of the first five FRC commissioners, was given responsibility for Region Five – the West Coast – and would shoulder the responsibility of rectifying the problem. His scrutiny of marginal stations such as KFWI would make life difficult for a lot of smaller radio operators.
The relationship between the FRC and KFWI seems to have been amicable at first. On June 1, 1927, KFWI received a new license assigning the more desirable frequency of 1120 kc. The station was now on the air twelve hours a day – from noon to midnight.
This changed on November 1, 1928, when KFWI was ordered to share time with KFWM in Oakland (later KROW) on 930 kc. Each station was to use the frequency 50% of the time “by mutual agreement”. This limited KFWI’s audience and revenue which had a financial impact on the station. KFWI filed a request for full time operation on the channel instead of sharing time with KFWM, but the request was denied. KFWI would share 930 kc. with KFWM for the rest of its short life.
The management continued to turn over as the station struggled on. By 1929: Charles L. Peck was the President and General Manager; O.A. Nelson, vice president, and Mildred L. Schneider, secretary/treasurer.
In April of 1927, the FRC issued its General Order No. 7 which required all stations to maintain their frequencies within 500 cycles of their assigned channel. This was a problem for stations like KFWI who had old transmitters that tended to drift in frequency, especially when their wire antennas blew in the wind. Crystal control of transmitters was not yet commonly used. Instead, radio stations used a crystal oscillator as a frequency reference. The transmitter operator would listen on headphones to a “beat note” that represented the difference between the transmitter and oscillator frequencies, and then would “zero beat” the transmitter by adjusting its frequency knob. It was not unusual to have to do this several times per hour to meet the new standards.
In December of 1928, the FRC made several measurements of KFWI and found it to be out of compliance with this regulation:
In January, KFWI received a telegram from FRC Commissioner Harold Lafount stating that the renewal of its license had been set for hearing because of continuous deviation from their assigned frequency. The hearing was held in San Francisco and attended by the KFWI management, who obtained a renewal of license based on a promise to be more vigilant in the future.
In 1929 and 30, the finances of KFWI were in deplorable condition. Funds were borrowed from private individuals to pay debts and to make improvements to the equipment that the FRC’s new regulations required. In its license application for 1929, KFWI reported that it had seven employees, including three engineers. The total payroll was $235 per week, total weekly talent cost was $200, and total income was only $2,000.
This resulted in a complete reorganization of KFWI on June 1, 1929, when a new board of directors was named. The goal was to turn it from a “record playing station” into a quality station. Elliot :M. Epsteen was the new president and Frank J. Young was the secretary. John B. Geisen became the new vice president/general manager. Mrs. Ada Morgan O’Brien was hired as the new program director. (She had formerly held the same position with KPO, KFDB and KTAB). Innovative new programs and special broadcasts were planned for June 1929. A plan was established with San Francisco’s high schools to hold a student radio talent competition. Live broadcasts were made of the Columbia Park Boys Band and the U.S.S. West Virginia Band. Exclusive arrangements were made to broadcast of services of the Church of Christ Scientist. A studio audition period was established every Thursday afternoon in a search for “new radio stars”. The plan resulted in an improvement of KFWI’s programs which increased listeners for a few months, but the financial aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash a few months later appears to have put an end to the station’s brief programming renaissance. There is no indication of Mrs. O’Brian’s involvement with the station after 1929.
In April of 1930, KFWI signed a five-year lease for studio facilities in the Bellevue Hotel at 505 Geary Street (at Taylor), and it moved into the new location later that year. (The Bellevue Hotel is now known as the Hotel Monaco.)
Starting in May, 1930, the McKay Radio and Telegraph Company in Day City began to complain that KFWI was interfering with its new shortwave communications circuit to Hawaii on 13,020 kc. The company had invested considerable sums to establish this new message link from the islands to the mainland, but harmonic interference from KFWI had made the circuit unusable when KFWI was operating. The local McKay engineer visited KFWI and recommended equipment changes to the station’s chief engineer, but the changes did not alleviate the problem. The interference continued unresolved for the rest of the year and resulted in a complaint being filed with the FRC by McKay’s New York office.
To further complicate the problem, at the end of 1930 the Commission issued General Orders 97, 111 and 116 which required stations to modernize their transmitter equipment to improve the broadcast quality and reduce interference. The orders had stricter specifications for modulation, frequency stability and harmonic reduction. The new regulations went into effect in February of 1931, and short term (60 day) renewals would be given to stations whose equipment did not comply.
KFWI’s transmitter had been acquired used. It was originally made in 1922 and had been heavily modified by the previous owner, utilizing obsolete technology which did not meet the new standards. In January 1931, KFWI sent a telegram to the FRC stating they had not been given sufficient time to comply with the new regulations and asking for a six month extension while they acquired a new transmitter. The telegram also stated that KFWI had more than doubled its business in the past year.
In order to finance the transmitter, the owners of Radio Entertainments, Inc. applied to the California Corporation Commission for authority to sell additional stock, but the authority to sell stock was refused because of the poor condition of the company’s finances and the fact that it had an operating deficit of $40,000. To pay for the new equipment, an assessment of $5.00 per share was levied against the existing stockholders, which resulted in the elimination of most of the original stockholders. The remaining owners were Frank W. Gale, president; John B. Geisen, vice president and general manager; Frank J. Young and Elliott M. Eppstein. A new corporation, Radio Entertainments, Ltd., was then organized and the FRC licensed KFWI in the name of the new corporation.
Finally in May of 1931, KFWI placed an order with Graybar Electric for a new Western Electric 6B crystal-controlled 1,000 watt transmitter – the most modern equipment available at the time. The estimated costs for the transmitter, studio and antenna improvements were $37,000 – a hefty sum at the depths of the depression. A downpayment was made and Graybar financed the balance on payment terms.
In addition to asking for authority to change transmitters, KFWI also requested an increase from 500 to 1,000 watts, the full capability of their new transmitter. It justified its request because it shared 930 kc with KROW which operated at 1,000 watts. KFWI said that it received listener complaints about the change of volume and signal quality that occurred when KROW signed off and KFWI signed on, which was caused by the difference in power. But the result was that the FRC set KFWI’s request for a new transmitter for hearing because California and the Fifth Zone were “over quota” in the FRC’s determination. The quota was based on the FRC’s mandate to equalize the usage of radio among the nation’s five zones. The FRC’s engineering department gave this explanation:
At the suggestion of the Commission, KFWI withdrew its application for increased power, and the permission to change transmitters was granted.
While the transmitter was being installed, the station received two more complaints of frequency violations. On August 21, 1931, KFW I responded to one FRC complaint by apologizing and saying that it had fired the operator who was on duty at the time of the violation. The letter was signed by Ernest E. Jefferson, Technical Director.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention was held in San Francisco in the summer of 1931, and Commissioner Lafount attended. During his trip, he met KFWI’s manager John Geisen and observed the installation of the new transmitter. LaFount offered to give his support to KFWI’s request for a power increase to 1000 watts so it could be at par with KROW. As a result of their encounter, KFWI again applied for a power increase in October.
However, the FRC’s response continued to be unfavorable, for the same reasons as previously given. Lafount wrote to Geisen that the Commission was considering every application based on a points system to equalize the stations in each of the five radio districts, and that the West was over quota. In order to request a power increase, he suggested Geisen specify another station’s facilities that they would be replacing.
In late 1931, to Geisen’s surprise, the commission’s staff decided to combine the power increase question with KFWI’s application for license renewal and set the two issues for a hearing to be held in Washington, D.C. The issue was whether the request for power increase would violate the Commission’s “point system”. To complicate things further, a new issue came to the FRC’s attention at the same time that would put KFWI’s very existence in jeopardy.
The Alburtus Incident
In January, 1932, the Commission received a letter of complaint from a KFWI listener. The complaint concerned broadcasts being made over KFWI by an astrologer named Alburtus. This happened to be a new cause that the FRC commissioners had recently taken up, in response to a great number of complaints about astrologers, “quacks”, real estate hucksters and other fraudsters who were broadcasting on a number of radio stations around the country. They believed that these “shysters”, “fakes” and “swindlers” were bilking the public and using the public airwaves to do it. The usual practice of the radio astrologer was to offer to answer listener’s personal questions over the air. They would sell astrological charts or similar documents through the mail, and the purchases allowed the buyers to have their questions answered over the air.
The FRC commissioners were incensed about these programs and wanted to do something about them, but the Radio Act of 1927 did not give the FRC the authority to censor program content. Finally in 1930 they determined to use the stations license renewal as a mechanism for getting such programs off the airwaves. They would set a station’s renewal for a hearing, questioning whether its operation was “in the public interest, convenience and necessity” as required by the Radio Act. An FRC press release was issued warning stations about the issue, although it never expressly prohibited such broadcasts. But suddenly, stations around the country were being called on the carpet because of their questionable programs. Most stations promptly discontinued the astrology broadcasts, which had the desired effect of eliminating most of the undesired programs from the nation’s airwaves. Those stations that weren’t immediately cooperative had their licenses reviewed by a judge, and some stations lost their licenses because of their intransigence. (Doctor John R. Brinkley’s KFKB in Kansas is the most notorious example among these.)
KFWI’s broadcasts of the astrologer Alburtus was one such program. It was on the air twice daily during the winter of 1931 and spring of 1932, consisting of fortune telling with letters being answered over the air, usually concerning personal affairs. A so-called astrological chart in pamphlet form was sold for $1.00 each, although answers on the air were not conditioned on the purchase of a chart. The net returns on the sale of these charts were divided between the station and Alburtus.
A transcript of one Alburtus program provides an example of the program’s typical content:
The City of San Francisco had a regulation against the practice of fortune telling within the city limits, and the Police Department was eager to stop the Alburtus broadcasts. But their inquiries to the station only received the reply that the broadcasts were being made over a remote telephone line from an undisclosed location in San Mateo County, outside the city’s jurisdiction. The Police Department then raised the issue with the local radio inspector, who in turn inquired to the station on at least one occasion.
At first, KFWI did not seem to fully appreciate the implications of the complaints. It justified the broadcasts by saying they were popular with the public and that other stations in the area were also carrying similar programs. It is likely that the broadcasts were bringing in significant revenues that management was not eager to give up.
Finally, in April of 1932, manager John Geisen wrote the FRC in response to an official inquiry and announced the program had been taken off the air. Nonetheless, in his letter Geisen continued to justify the program:
(In fact, at the same time the FRC had set KTAB’s license renewal for hearing because of the broadcasts of another astrologer.)
Geisen went on to explain the popularity of the program and downplay the station’s earnings from it:
To Geisen’s great surprise, the response of the Commission to his letter was to enlarge the issue of KFWI’s license renewal and power increase hearing with the new issue of the Alburtus broadcasts. The hearing was now to determine if the station’s license should be revoked! An immediate station appeal to Commissioner Lafount caused him to inquire about the case to the FRC’s legal department. On April 15, Lafount received this response in the form of an internal memo:
Lafount then responded by mail to Geisen, saying:
Eight people, including Geisen, were ordered to be deposed in San Francisco on April 18. A hearing on the KFWI case was held in Washington on May 6, 1932 by Examiner R. H. Hyde, and Geisen was required to travel across the country to testify at the hearing. In his report and recommendation, issued the following month, Hyde questioned the financial viability of the station, noting that its liabilities exceeded assets when the value of the license and good will were not considered. He pointed out that about $14,000 was still owed on the new transmitter purchase. Hyde recognized that KFWI’s programs,
Hyde also acknowledged the technical quality of the station:
Nonetheless, Hyde recommended that the application for license renewal be denied, principally due to the astrology broadcasts.
The examiner’s report was only a recommendation, submitted to the full Commission for a final determination on KFWI’s license. In response to the hearing examiner’s report, KFWI filed a pleading with the Commission questioning a number of his findings:
On August 30, 1932, the full Commission issued its decision in the matter. It approved the renewal of KFWI’s license, but denied KFWI’s request for an increase in power.
After enduring eight months of torment and expense with the FRCover these issues, KFWI was back to where it had started. It was still a 500 watt radio station sharing a frequency with a more powerful station. Its management was poorer but wiser. In 1931, the FRC issued broadcast licenses valid for only six months, and license renewal was almost a continuous process, meaning that the station could again come under scrutiny at any time. Its programs and technical operations were under constant observation, which impacted both revenues and expenses during the darkest days of the depression.
End of the Line
After the hearing decision, KFWI was able to maintain its precarious financial situation for just a few more months. The station’s license was renewed on March 10, 1933 for the final time, with validity until October 1.
On June 23, 1933, the Federal Radio Commission received a telegram from Geisen:
On that same day, the local sales agent for Graybar Electric cabled his superiors in Washington saying “We have finally been able to repossess equipment sold KFWI. It is now in sheriff’s hands awaiting final disposition.”
The FRC granted the station authority to remain silent for 30 days, and subsequently extended it for several additional equal periods. On July 28, John B. Geisen sent a request to the Commission for additional authority to remain silent. He wrote:
Another letter from Geisen in August said they were negotiating with five different possible lenders but had not received a commitment from any of them.
Meanwhile, taking advantage of the fact that KFWI was off the air, KROW filed a request with the FRC for full time operation on 930 kc - essentially asking to take over KFWI’s half of the channel time. The FRC sent a letter to KFWI asking them to file for a license renewal so they could set up the two requests for a competitive hearing. Geisen responded by telegram on October 3 promising to file the renewal, but the company was apparently unable to do so without specifying a transmitter. Finally, faced with the competing application from KROW and no renewal from KFWI, the FRC cancelled KFWI’s license and deleted the call sign from their records on October 24, 1933. On November 9, KROW was awarded fulltime use of the 930 frequency in San Francisco.
In the ensuing months, the FRC received correspondence from a number of parties who were interested in acquiring the KFWI license, but they were informed that the license was cancelled and the station had been deleted from their records.
The business of radio in the 1920s and early 30s was often not lucrative. Equipment and operating costs were very high, and advertising was still not well established as a revenue source. The public resented the presence of any overt advertising on the airwaves, and the FRC was increasingly placing limits on a station’s options for revenue-producing programs. In the years after 1929, the economic conditions caused by the depression combined to make the situation even more untenable, especially for the small station.
Larger stations usually had the benefit of a network affiliation which brought in good revenue, and many independent stations were owned by business interests with deep pockets who were often willing to subsidize a losing station for the publicity benefit alone. But the smaller operators did not have that luxury. They typically operated with weak signals on undesirable frequencies high in the band, where many radios had trouble separating the stations from each another, and shared their time on those channel with other small stations. A good number of struggling stations like KFWI went out of business in the late 20s and early 30s.
KFWI was the last of the small radio station to cease operations in San Francisco. After its demise, just twelve stations remained on the local radio dial. The economics of the radio business would soon improve as the worst of the depression faded, and radio was becoming a primary source of entertainment for the population. By the end of the thirties, the remaining twelve stations had each found their own footing to survive and eventually thrive, and each of them continues in operation to this day. If KFWI could have held out a little longer -- perhaps with less pressure from government regulators --, they might have been one of the survivors.
Who bears the responsibility for KFWI’s failure? Was it doomed from the start by inadequate finances? Was KFWI San Francisco’s “bad boy” of radio stations, continually in trouble with the government because of its own bad practices? Or was it driven out of business by the actions of overzealous regulators in Washington? We leave it to the reader to decide.